THE MAN WHO ROBS YOU: Crucifix Taken and Retrieved

“Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your property back from the man who robs you.”

In the scheme of things, it’s not that big a deal. No one died or was injured. When we came to celebrate Mass on Tuesday morning our lovely crucifix was missing and nowhere to be found. Presumed stolen! My concern was that this was becoming a pattern because the previous week it was our most precious chalice (other chalices have been taken in the past) which was discovered later for sale in a shop. The embarrassed owner gave it back for nothing. When something is stolen from us we feel it like an invasion and when something sacred or holy is stolen it hurts more.

We made a decision to keep the church open throughout the day as much as possible so that people passing by could drop in to light a candle, say a prayer, sit in silence or even sing out loud! It happened one evening that I came on a young couple doing just that – singing. People comment on the peace that is to be found in the building and I want that experience to be freely available. Our church is a house of peace, “a house of prayer for all peoples” as Jesus has said. It is He who is present!

When something gets stolen it feels like an invasion, a desecration of the sacred and the temptation is to close the church in order to protect it. But that would be like giving in, defeating the purpose of the place.

I decided to put a post on facebook with a photo of the crucifix in its rightful place on the altar and my hope was that someone might come across it and let us know. Nobody did come across it but there was a very big response to the post.

In the afternoon I decided to do a little tour of the second-hand shops, places that I never visited before and I was quite surprised to see just how many old crucifixes there were on sale and well as statues.

Not being too good at confrontation I wondered what I’d do if I actually saw our crucifix and I said a prayer to God to make me do the right thing. And then I saw it with its distinctive St. Benedict’s medal, in a glass cabinet. My skin tingled! So, I just took out my phone, brought up the photo of the crucifix on the altar and, without saying a word, I showed it to the shop owner. His eyes opened wide in recognition and he phoned the man who had sold it to him. I spoke to that man on the phone and he offered to send me a cctv photo of the person who sold it to him. I was about to say yes but something in me said no! I didn’t want to go down that road. So, I happily went home carrying the cross!

I went on facebook to let people know that the crucifix had been recovered and was struck by one of the comments that said, “Maybe, just maybe, they were in desperate need?” and I accepted that, agreed with it. Then I went to look at the readings for next Sunday and it is all about forgiveness but I laughed out loud when I read these words of Jesus, do not ask for your property back from the man who robs you! There in front of me was a command I had just disobeyed. I could not now disobey further by not forgiving and I was happy that my instinct was not to seek justice by going after the man who had taken the crucifix.

Luke 6:27-56 is a seriously challenging Gospel for all of us – every single word of it goes against our human grain. Everything in it demands that we be more than human in our responses, demands that we be divine. And even when we catch ourselves living out our natural instincts, we are called to challenge those instincts and strive for what is higher, to stop before we speak, before we write a response, before we act and ask how would Jesus respond.

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. To the man who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too; to the man who takes your cloak from you, do not refuse your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your property back from the man who robs you. Treat others as you would like them to treat you. Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back."

Today in the context of forgiveness I was thinking of the woman with the silver car who has been parking here without permission and has been quite insulting with people. I have left messages on her windscreen and have been tempted to report her and sometimes feel quite angry with her but something keeps telling me not to judge her, to make allowances for her, to be Christian, Christ-like in the way I think of her. And I was almost feeling self-satisfied about all of that when I was driving back from a meeting today and I arrived in the church car park to find that she had parked in my space. My blood boiled for an instant and I was planning to write another message when I could sense God saying to me to pull back. And anyway, it’s not my space even if it has my title on it. In any case I should not be possessive of any space or title. These are not the things that life is made of. So, instead of a message I put a small prayer card of the Holy Family under the wiper on her windscreen. And I took the Housekeeper’s place instead!

Forgiveness does not necessarily mean that I have to have a relationship with the one who has hurt me but, when the crime causes injury or to another person, then it has to be put into the hands of the civil law.

Saturday morning before Mass we discovered that our Holy Oils had also gone missing from the sacristy and that was seriously annoying because we had a baptism scheduled for midday and the oils were needed for that. The oils are contained in three beautiful round brass containers in a black box. But again I had to tell myself that, however inconvenient, this was not a matter of life or death. Thankfully we were able to borrow oils for Good Shepherd parish in St. Leonard's-on-Sea. The baptism was delayed a bit but it was worth the wait. Beautiful child. Happy parents.

RAFORD: A Place of Grace

I’m remembering Raford, the house on the hill in the country that was my mother’s birthplace, and I’m thinking of the clear cold water from the rain barrel at the gable end, cold water scooped up in a white enamel basin put standing on the kitchen table. White soap in a saucer and a blue towel to wipe away from my face the shock of the cold water of the morning.
Granny cut slices of brown bread made by her own hands, the wholemeal wholeness of her heart in it and lavished with salty country butter churned by the same hands and mine.
Everything and everybody was washed in rainwater and we went to the well down the lane to draw that which would quench our thirst and wet the tea. We brought tea in a billy can across the fields to Grandad in the bog and helped him load the cart with turf, sitting on top of it for the journey home, staring down into the black water of the bog holes, terrified that the cart would turn over when its wheels went to the very edge. It never did and we never fell into that cold blackness. We needn’t have been afraid at all.
Back in the kitchen at night we sat by the open fire, staring silently into it and beyond it with no distraction except for the ticking of the clock and Granny getting up to make rice pudding which she gave to me on a red plastic plate. I see it still and taste it.
When Pope Francis talks of the domestic church, I think of those childhood days of Raford. I feel the warmth and safety of it and it tells me that this is what it is like to be in the presence of God, this is what it’s like to pray - God is like my Granny and we love each other without question, without having to say a whole lot to each other.
They are gone now, my mother and grandparents, gone to their eternal home and the house on the hill is now filled with the grace and warmth, the love and the faith of aunty Carmel. It’s always a blessing to go there whenever I can. I went there some months after my mother’s death and ended up crying like a child for the loss of her and the kitchen was again a chapel where I received the calm consolation of Carmel. God and grace can easily be found in the kitchens of our lives if we allow Him enough space to make His presence felt.

THE HOLY BATH: A Rite of Passage

It's a very hot day but my time standing under the burning sun lasts only half an hour and then I'm into the shaded, seated area. Normally I really dislike waiting in a queue of any sort but there's a blessedness here waiting in common with others. Waiting and silent. Present. Waiting to get into the holy bath of Lourdes. The feast day of Lourdes was last Monday, February 11th

There’s one section for women and another for men. Sometimes my eyes are closed, sometimes I simply observe. This reminds me of the pool of Bethesda in John 5 - the paralysed waiting for the moment of healing. We’re all paralysed in one way or another, all in need of healing. Dads with their little sons get priority over the rest of us, which is only right. They are a beautiful sight. 

A young father holds his paralysed son in his arms. The boy spends his time looking up into the face of his father. Their eyes meet, their faces touch and the child utters incomprehensible sounds as his Dad whispers words that seem soft and gentle. Maybe funny words because they both laugh. 

After two hours waiting my time arrives to go into the building and I'm taken in behind a curtain where three men are sitting on brown plastic chairs wearing only boxers. I strip down to the same vulnerable state. That's what I feel - that we are in a vulnerable state as we wait. 

Richard Rohr talks a lot about the need for rites of passage or initiation for Western men; the need to be confronted by our own vulnerability in order to mature. This bath experience offers something like that - for me at least. Though I know I have confronted my vulnerability many times, nakedness is somehow more threatening than any crisis I've endured. O

ne of the attendants takes me respectfully - as though I am a child or an old man - through the final curtain into the bath area.  I stand in cold water up to my ankles - like Ezekiel in the Temple stream. With eyes closed the only prayer in me is "Your will be done!" Making the sign of the Cross I say "I'm ready" while the two bath attendants bring me backwards down into the cold water until all but the tip of my face is submerged for the briefest moment. 

They surge me back onto my feet. I feel like a dolphin or a whale breaking the surface.  The body dries of its own accord, one of the miracles of the bath in Lourdes. I shake hands with each of them and say "God bless!" Once more back through the curtain, I get fully dressed and walk out into the beautiful warm sunshine.

A RIVER IN THE DRY SEASON: Remembering Shirley, Twenty Years On

“When I’m Sixty-Four”, the Beatles song from 1967! I sang it back then when I was twelve, wondering what it might be like to be that old! And now it’s happened. I’m 64 and slowly losing my hair. I don’t want to lose it altogether and it’s amazing how important hair is to us, to me! And it reminds me of Shirley who, this time twenty years ago was in the last months of her life. She had cancer, a brain tumour for a few years. I was with her before she had surgery in 1997 and she said to me, “oh Eamonn, what if I die without my hair!” She had beautiful hair. A beautiful woman, with a beautiful mind, heart and soul. So much to lose.

I’m thinking of my last journey to see her. We became friends, soul mates in Makiungu, Tanzania when I was a young priest and she a more seasoned missionary. In her I found a hearing and the freedom to be myself. The jacaranda trees, the airstrip at sunset, the starry sky - if these could speak, they would tell so much of our shared life. And our friendship had a lot of laughter in it, laughter which erupted and poured out of us on different occasions. Shirley was pure and had an innocence that gave her a great capacity for wonder and gratitude. She was free to admire, to admire me or anyone else. In her presence there was no room for low self-esteem. She quieted my self-criticism, which is sometimes harsh, and left me feeling like I was the best thing ever. 

So, I arrived in Boston in February 1999 and saw this old looking woman standing alone with a stick. I had to look twice to be sure it was Shirley. As a result of treatment, her lovely straight hair was replaced by a curly wig, which seemed so out of character. She was so frail but her enthusiasm and joy were still there. The cancer by then was in her spine and she knew she was going to die but intended to live until I die. She, like me, looked forward to seeing Jesus face to face. We spent days talking about the past, the friends we shared, our concerns about our families and about suffering and death. She was afraid of pain but had a strong sense of offering it in union with Jesus for the salvation of the world. She had total confidence in God and expected that in death he would come running to meet her and pick her up in his arms. She emphasized that she knew she was a sinner but she trusted completely in the love and mercy of God. 

There's something about February! This time last year I had the virus that laid me up for a month. For part of that time Fr. Tony was looking after me, trying to persuade me to eat and when I said I wasn't hungry he replied, "you are hungry, you just don't know it!" That was news to me. I always thought that if you were hungry you would feel it.

That in turn makes me wonder about how many people are spiritually hungry and don't know it and are depriving themselves of the spiritual nourishment they need. Starving themselves to death spiritually. Which brings me to this weekend's first reading from Jeremiah.

When I was in Galapo Shirley would come for retreat with me and on one such visit, during the dry season, we went for a walk. All the land was a hot, dry, red dust and it reflected my soul in the spiritual desert where I happened to be at the time. We suddenly came to a little valley through which a river flowed and on its banks the trees were rich and full of fresh leaves. So much like the piece in Jeremiah 17:7, Blessed are those who trust in the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by the water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. It was an oasis and a surprise to us that so close to the drought the water flowed. A sign to us of what is possible in the Spirit.  In order to find the water that quenches our thirst we need to feel that thirst; in order to find the river that nourishes our dryness we need to allow ourselves to feel how dry we actually are.

The river in which the Christian needs to be rooted is the Spirit of Jesus; the essential food of the Christian is Jesus in the Eucharist. We set ourselves close to Him in order to live. It's what Shirley and I found together in Jesus. An exceptional blessing. 

After I left Tanzania in 1986 our opportunities for meeting were limited. The bond of love built up between us was strong enough to survive the distance and at the same time we were free enough of each other not to cling. Our bond was nothing other than Jesus and the mystery of his life, which we share. Whenever she was home on leave, she would come through Ireland and wed manage some time together. I also got the chance to see her in Tanzania in 1992 and a couple of other times in Boston.

In August 1997 she phoned to tell me she had returned home to Boston because she had a brain tumour. In May of that year, before she knew she was ill, she told me how she had made a complete surrender of her life to God and she was open to whatever would come. I went to Boston in early September and was with her in the hospital for a couple of days before her operation. I found it hard to cope with what she was going through and felt utterly helpless and silent. There was a lot of silence between us, a helpless silence, a truthful silence and a peaceful one. She was so pleased that Id come all the way, it was enough for her that I was there and that I would hold her hand. 

Intimacy, though, has its limits and there is no way of entering completely into the core of anothers suffering. In the face of Shirleys suffering and the possibility of her death, I discovered in a new way the aloneness of the consecrated life, the aloneness in which only God is present. She was keenly focused on God and she was also, as a result of that, very focused in reality and she was never shocked or repelled by the messiness of another human being. So, it was safe to be with her. In this she had the attractiveness of Jesus himself, the attractiveness which made him so approachable to the worst of sinners.

My week with her in 1999 was a retreat, a haven of peace. We shared the basement of the convent in Somerville and in the mornings, I would make us coffee and bring it to her room where we talked endlessly or didn’t talk. I could tell her anything. We could tell each other anything and in my presence she would remove her wig which I think took great courage and trust. Her fear of dying without her hair had already come true but she had also conquered that fear.

We went to see “The Taking of Christ”, the famous painting by Caravaggio and as we stood there gazing, it seemed that His and her faces mirrored each other, each one sharing the suffering of the other.

We watched a lot of videos in the evenings, one of which was a concert of Andrea Bocelli. It was then I saw and heard for the first time his duet with Sarah Brightman, “Time to Say Goodbye”, an appropriate song for us as we were about to part from each other for the last time on this earth. I also thought how much my sister Maura would like it, which she did when I played it for her, not realizing the significance it would take on six months later.

One of the last things Shirley said to me in was when I die, I will love God all the more for having loved you. What a lovely thing for me to hear and to know!

On May 25th, returning from another journey there was a note pinned to my office door that simply said, “Shirley died.” The news, the reality of it tore a hole in my middle and all I could do was curl up on my bed. My young student community were very thoughtful of my loss and looked out for the one who was sent to look after them. The mercies of the Lord are never over and love comes to us in many forms.

Come Take My Hands

I went to visit a man in hospital during the week and as I approached his bed, he stretched out his hand towards me, taking hold of mine and quietly stroking the back of my hand with his thumb. After a while of quiet he said, “we’ll let your hands do the talking!” Then he cried over his life as words would not express what was in him and I blessed him with my hands, spoke to him with my hands. Absolution, anointing, Holy Communion. He was satisfied, relieved, pleased. It’s not that it’s the end or anything. Just what he needed on the day.
As our hands were held in that firm grip, I felt there was in it a powerful connection with each other and with God as if our hands became the intersection of the height and depth of a mystical experience.
The height experienced by Isaiah, the depth experienced by Peter in the readings of last Sunday. Isaiah reminds me of an outstation in Tanzania – Hurui – where they were great for singing and one that I remember from them is based on Isaiah chapter 6. The Swahili words still say it best for me. My memory is of sitting among them listening, singing with them – “Nimtume nani? Unitume mimi ee Bwana!” Whom shall I send? Send me Lord! I felt it with all my being.
Of course, by being there I had already been sent and had already arrived. But the sending stretches out beyond the present into a future unknown to us. Known only to God. For us it is to be available, to long to be sent further and further.
The sending and the going is based on a personal encounter with God which awakens in us a deeper knowledge of self and in turn a deeper knowledge of God.
Isaiah had an experience of heaven. The glory and the holiness of God. Peter had an experience of the divine power of Jesus. Both Isaiah and Peter realized, “what a wretched man I am, a man of unclean lips, depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man!” And the response of God is Mercy – purification and forgiveness – followed by a call to act on behalf of God. A holy awareness of one’s sinfulness is always immediately accompanied by the experience of Mercy. If the two don’t go together, if we simply feel guilty, then it’s not from God.
Here I am, send me! The great hineni of the Old Testament. Openness to God, total availability to Him. Interestingly, Hineni features on the title track of Leonard Cohen’s last album, “You Want It Darker” – “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord!”
Here I am today, offering my hands to God for Him to use. I look at my two hands and realize the gift that they are, gifts of blessing for others. We are called to use our hands aware of their sacredness, aware that when, as a Christian, I touch another I impart a blessing. When I shake hands, offer a high-five – these are simple, sacred moments of blessing. Husband’s and wives touch each other in the intimacy of their love and thereby bless each other. Parents and children touch each other with the blessing of their hands. Friends. Strangers.
Come Lord Jesus come! Come take my hands. Take them for your own. Take them for your service Lord. Take them for your glory Lord. We sang this at Mass on Sunday.
Christ has no hands on earth but yours to do good. To do good and not to harm or hurt. Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world.

The Solitary Life of a Single Woman

Mary, a neighbour at home died recently. She was about a year younger than me and lived three doors away, lived there most of our sixty-something lives. There are two brothers and a sister, married with their own families but Mary remained single and lived at home alone for many years since her parents died.

A solitary life, even an isolated one. No one in the avenue ever seemed to get close to her, there was no sign of friends coming to see her. We were not close, though we would always have a chat at her gate when I’d be home. The talk was mostly about her health because she had been fighting cancer for quite a few years and I would promise to pray for her. Her response to this promise of mine one day was, “you’re a liar, you’re a liar!” Maybe I wasn’t praying enough. Maybe she was telling the truth. 

But I did think of her and pray when in my mind I would go around the sixteen terraced houses in the avenue and I would feel what I thought must be her loneliness, though maybe she wasn’t lonely at all. 

The last time I spoke to her was in August before returning to Hastings. She had aged terribly and was pretty honest about her condition, even her aloneness. “But I’m not alone” she said, “haven’t I got God with me all the time!” It’s what Jesus Himself said of His own aloneness – “You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.” (John 16:32). And Padre Pio featured a lot in our conversations. She had great faith in him.

When I was home in January, I looked at her house every day wondering was she there, was she alright but there was no one to answer my questions and she wasn’t there, she was already dying in the Hospice and died a few days after I returned here. I feel the sadness of her passing and the starkness of her death notice that said nothing about her funeral except, “Private cremation to take place in Shannon Crematorium.” We felt the need to honour her life and death, to connect with the family’s grief but there was nothing, no way of doing that. And I now ask myself, “who are we that we think we should seek to enter a grief that is not ours?” The starkness of it now seems appropriate because it fits with the kind of solitude she lived. I offered Mass for her and in that there is the only connection necessary. 

All of this makes me think of those who live single lives, those who are alone in the world. They are overlooked so much of the time by society and church. We value marriage, family, relationships and rightly so but we often neglect the single life which has a value in itself and is also a valid vocation from God by which the Church and the world is served and saved. 

Thinking of Mary brings me back to another solitary woman who touched my life, who came as a gift one winter. I prayed for her when I was 17, having glimpsed something of her sacredness on the feast of St. Anthony of Egypt - go sell everything. Everything! Anthony heard and acted immediately on the Word. As St. Francis did later. I heard and took my time but yearned as I yearn for the sea, as I yearn for God himself and sought her out over the years, associating with many of her companions along the way. But her I did not find for forty or more years. Mahila, Lady Poverty, Sacred Poverty in Person. Beautiful Simplicity. 

And then, there she was in a church on a wet January evening when the cold darkness was deep and all pervading. We didn’t speak at first and not for many an evening. I respected her solitude and her prayer. She respected mine. But in that silence we became part of each other, straining our ears, stretching our souls to grasp the loving whisperings of the Holy Spirit. She spent hours praying, sometimes sleeping like the Little Flower. There’s the photo of her before her suffering began that reminds us of the loss that she endured. We have all witnessed her suffering. She was once incredibly beautiful, as Grace Kelly was beautiful but the woman in the seat behind me bore little resemblance to the woman of the past. Life ravaged her. Stripped her of all external beauty so that she resembled the Suffering Servant who had no physical beauty to attract. Though that is not completely true because her eyes still sparkled with the unspeakable beauty that she had in her; the colours that she wore, displaying something of the colour, the liveliness that is in God. 

She walked with confidence, striding through life, striding into the church, a childlike presence in there, a childlike determination. I felt the loss of her - the loss of not being able to speak to her again or hear her; no longer to see her coming from the blessed sacrament chapel when she would walk up to where I sat, coming up to speak to me or sometimes just to look at me! Steady eyes! She would go out for a smoke before Mass and wash her hands in preparation for Holy Communion. 

Jesus speaks, “as father has loved me so I have loved you. Remain in my love! If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love” (John 15:9). Keeping His commandments! One of the commandments of Jesus that we don’t often think about as a commandment is, ”if you want to follow me you must take up your cross every day” and that is what she did. That is a command she lived. Every day she picked up the cross of her suffering and every day she emerged from her home into the world with the best of her ability and carried her cross into the church, into her prayer, everywhere - to old folks parties, to dance with them, make them happy, bringing great joy.

And I would look at her and think, here is a woman carrying a great cross and yet she has the courage to go out there and lift others up. Very, very inspiring for me! Even though there were commandments of God that she could not live by, she certainly lived the two great commandments of suffering and love. Two of the most certain paths to union with God. As my mother used to say, only Jesus is perfect! The rest of us struggle with something and our journey is to struggle through life with whatever we are given. We don’t choose the cross, the suffering we have to bear but in bearing it we discover something more precious than gold. Hidden within the suffering is the mystery of God’s presence, that most kindly of gazes by which we are seen and known. 

When he looks at her he sees the child he loves with all his heart, the unspeakable love. I knew her mostly within the clearly defined boundaries of the church, occasionally meeting her outside Cafe Solo in the village, and we loved each other within those boundaries. Before Christmas she came to me in the sacristy to tell me she was going to her sister for Christmas. And she did what she never did before - she kissed me on the lips. It was the kiss of Lady poverty that I had sought all my adult life. It was the kiss of God. 

On my birthday that year she collapsed into the silence that would never speak again, released into the colour of God’s love, the colour and music of it. I think of how she would burst out laughing. And all of the prayer she offered carries her home to God, to the fulfillment that her heart has desired, the love that she has needed so badly, that only God can give in the end.

About ten years ago I came to a clear understanding of how solitary I am in my own life. Gatwick airport came to shutdown during a snow storm one night and as every flight was cancelled I observed all the other passengers - some frantic - phoning home to explain the delay. Then I observed that I had no need to phone anyone because there was no one waiting for me on the other side and no one would know that I wouldn't be home that night. I was tempted to feel a bit sorry for myself but then I refused to go down that futile road, accepting my reality which is a reality lived by many people in the world. And it's alright! As they say in Tanzania, "Mungu yupo!" - God is here!